When I was 16 my Dad owned a retail store. Actually, he owned other retail stores for years, but this particular store was a women’s clothing store and I was 16. He put me in charge of the receiving department. Seriously, I think I was the only person responsible for the receiving department, however, it was over 30 years ago so I may be exaggerating.
Anyway, I could only work part-time hours because I was in high school. But, remember I was responsible, so I asked my Dad if we could get some help. He told me I could. So at 16 I hired my first employee. I hired my friend Karen who also went to high school with me.
This was my first official role in leadership.
After 30 more years of being in leadership roles, in a myriad of settings…..
After reading way more than 30 books on leadership in these same years….
And attending at least as many leadership trainings, talks, or conferences….
This is what I know to be true about leadership……
Communication skills are the absolute most important skills of leadership.
It doesn’t matter how much intelligence you have to share with your team if you can’t effectively transfer it. I had a boss once who was a genius. All kinds of degrees and technical ability. But he just had an ordinary staff. He spoke over our heads, lost patience, and couldn’t train us. He lasted 9 months and trust me it was not because he wasn’t smart enough.
I knew a guy who was an honest hard-working professional. He never lied, cut corners, or took anything that wasn’t his. He would always come tell me….
“your desk is a mess…..I’m just being honest”
“I don’t think Sheila can do the job ( Sheila is in the room)…..I am just being honest”
“you are too slow, look funny today, did a bad job on that project…..”
and yes, he was giving his honest opinion, in a way that nothing positive was achieved.
In a nutshell:
- As a leader, it doesn’t matter how smart, honest, well intentioned, or hardworking you are if you cannot communicate effectively to people. Effectively is defined here as what works. What works is sometimes different for different people and that is why communication is such a highly sought after leadership skill by companies. Experienced business people know how rare it is to find someone who communicates effectively to “most” people.
- Lack of communication is a form of poor communication. Yes it is better in many situations to not say anything at all if what you are going to say will hurt or destroy, but on a regular basis lack of communication WILL hurt or destroy.
- The best plans and ideas will never make it any further without good communication.
- You can have all the components of a great company – strong vision, good people, excellent processes and systems, but it will not take flight without strong communication.
- Without communication, there is not leadership. And without effective communication, there is not effective leadership.
If you own a small business, lead a group of people in any way, the most important thing you can spend time on as a leader is your ability to communicate effectively.
Here are some areas you may want to start:
- Take a test and read a book on Emotional Intelligence. I recently read Emotional Intelligence 2.0. It has an online test and the book walks you through many different ideas for ways to work on the areas you score lowest. Having high emotional intelligence helps you understand yourself and others in order to more effectively communicate.
- Create regular scheduled times for communication with those you lead. If communication is not a strength, getting caught in a hallway conversation or being interrupted when you are in a highly stressful situation, will likely lead to saying something you regret or may not even remember. Knowing that there is a scheduled time will put your team at ease that they will have an opportunity to talk to you.
- Learn about the different types of communication. We can communicate verbally, in writing, with body language, by listening and now with various types of technology. You may be better at some rather than others. Look for your strengths and lean on those areas.
- Practice. Get a coach. Coaches are great to role play difficult conversations. I had a coach help me to better communicate to groups. Having an outsider who is not part of your team gives you an objective, unbiased, sounding board.
- Measure your results. It seems like a weird, intangible thing to measure doesn’t it? But really it isn’t. Once you have worked on your communication, measure those areas. If you want to be better at communicating vision, you can measure your success by seeing who on your team can articulate your vision over time. If you want to measure improved project execution, look at results compared to prior projects. If you want to measure unity, team engagement, and your relationship with the people on your team look for enthusiasm, energy, and participation in one on one and group meetings. Is it different than before?
When you are in high school, only 16, working part-time and are the senior executive vice president in charge of receiving for the very busy CEO (Dad) in the old days of no Facebook, texting and email, you do what you have to do in order to effectively communicate to your team (the other 16 year old, high school student friend). You pass hand-written notes in class, or skip class with her, and sneak out to McDonalds for your high powered business planning lunch!